All public defenders are lawyers, which means that the very first step needed to become a public defender is the procurement of a law degree. Public defenders typically come from all sorts of academic backgrounds and specialties. What unites them is their interest in criminal law, their passion for serving the poor and underrepresented, and their enjoyment of active legal representation and litigation. The turnover rate for public defenders in most areas is high, which means that jobs are almost always available for those who qualify.
Public defender programs are programs through which indigent or otherwise low-income defendants can be guaranteed representation. Often times, these programs are government-sponsored. The United States has one of the world’s most robust public defender programs, but the public defender model is used to at least a certain degree in most places.
Different jurisdictions have different requirements for becoming a public defender, but all candidates must be lawyers to even be considered. This means that the first thing you must do to become a public defender is to attend and graduate from law school. In countries like the United States, law school is a three-year post-graduate program, while in parts of Europe, extended lawyer training programs are often entered directly after high school.
The majority of a public defender’s work involves litigation strategy and criminal law interpretation. There are no strict public defender requirements beyond basic legal education, but it is usually a good idea to take as many criminal law classes as you can in law school and seek out opportunities to practice your trial skills. Most law schools have moot court clubs and mock trial competitions. Joining and regularly competing in these groups can sharpen your litigation edge, which can make it easier for you to become a public defender.
You should also look into volunteer opportunities with public defenders’ offices or legal aid groups in your community while you are in law school. Many defense-oriented organizations allow law students to intern or work as law clerks. This can give you exposure to the public defense process, insight into the different types of public defender careers, and allow you to help out behind the scenes on many different kinds of cases. Most of these positions are for little or no pay, but the experience is worth it if you are really serious about wanting to become a public defender.
Once you have a law degree, you will then need to pass your jurisdiction’s bar exam or licensing exam. You can usually attend law school almost anywhere, but in most cases you will need to sit for the bar exam in the jurisdiction in which you are hoping to become a public defender. Public defenders work in the courts applying local law. As such, it is important that you be licensed to practice law in the courts where you will be arguing once you become a public defender.
Most public defenders work for the government, and as such, the jobs are often posted on government or official court websites. Public defender positions with the government are often readily available: the pay is typically low and the hours long, which often leads to high turnovers. Little or no experience is usually required at the entry level, however, and taking the job can be a great way to quickly gain a lot of experience.
Legal aid societies or public interest law groups often also hire public defenders. Some of these charity-funded groups will take on new attorneys, but many look for lawyers with at least some criminal defense experience. Public defender duties in legal aid groups often include mounting more complex defenses, usually involving appeals or retrials.